Fer­tile Nile Delta at risk

The famed river in egypt is dry­ing up and threat­en­ing to jeop­ar­dise crops in the arab world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try.

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LUSH green fields blan­ket north­ern Egypt’s Nile Delta, but the coun­try’s agri­cul­tural heart­land and its vi­tal fresh­wa­ter re­sources are un­der threat from a warm­ing cli­mate.

The fer­tile arc-shaped basin is home to nearly half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, and the river that feeds it pro­vides Egypt with 90% of its water needs.

But climb­ing tem­per­a­tures and drought are dry­ing up the mighty Nile – a prob­lem com­pounded by ris­ing seas and soil salin­iza­tion, ex­perts and farm­ers say.

Com­bined, they could jeop­ar­dise crops in the Arab world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, where the food needs of its 98 mil­lion res­i­dents are only ex­pected to in­crease.

“The Nile is shrink­ing. The water doesn’t reach us any­more,” says Talaat al-Sisi, a farmer who has grown wheat,

corn and other crops for 30 years in the south­ern delta gover­norate of Me­noufia.

“We’ve been forced to tap into the ground­wa­ter and we’ve stopped grow­ing rice,” a ce­real known for its greedy water con­sump­tion, he adds.

By 2050, the re­gion could lose up to 15% per­cent of its key agri­cul­tural land due to salin­iza­tion, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 study pub­lished by Egyp­tian econ­o­mists.

The yield of tomato crops could drop by 50%, the study said, with sta­ple ce­re­als like wheat and rice fall­ing 18% and 11% per­cent re­spec­tively.


In Kafr al-Dawar in the delta’s north, Egypt’s ir­ri­ga­tion min­istry and the United Na­tions are work­ing on ecofriendly tech­niques like so­lar-pow­ered wa­ter­ing that ex­perts say emit less green­house gases and could help im­prove crop yields.

On site, two farm­ers wear­ing tra­di­tional gal­abiya gowns show off shiny new so­lar pan­els framed by row af­ter row of corn, bar­ley and wheat.

Sayed Soli­man, eyes bright and cane in hand, runs a group of about 100 farm­ers who work a plot of more than 100ha.

The sea­soned farmer is de­lighted. He can now power the pumps that water his field with­out re­ly­ing on Egypt’s faulty elec­tric­ity grid and ex­pen­sive fos­sil fu­els like diesel that are re­spon­si­ble for cli­mate change.

Diesel-pow­ered gen­er­a­tors are now only used “when nec­es­sary”, he says, such as af­ter sun­set.

Af­ter his suc­cess, a neigh­bour­ing vil­lage is also switch­ing to so­lar-pow­ered ir­ri­ga­tion.

“One of the pri­or­i­ties is in­no­va­tion ... so that Egypt can make the most of its water,” says Hussein Gadain, the UN’s Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion (FAO) rep­re­sen­ta­tive in Egypt.

“The delta plays an im­por­tant role in the coun­try’s food se­cu­rity.”

Ibrahim Mah­moud, head of the ir­ri­ga­tion min­istry’s de­vel­op­ment projects, says plans are in place to mod­ernise wa­ter­ing sys­tems across the coun­try by 2050.

The strat­egy, he says, is in­tended to im­prove farm­ers’ “en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, stan­dards of liv­ing and pro­duc­tiv­ity”.

‘Life or death’

But in a coun­try in the tight grip of Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah al-Sisi, the Nile Delta and its re­sources re­main an ul­tra-sen­si­tive topic.

Our visit last month to Kafr al-Dawar is closely su­per­vised by the min­istry.

In front of of­fi­cials, farm­ers stick to well-worn talk­ing points about the delta’s bounty but po­litely skirt ques­tions on water scarcity.

Al-Sisi has made the Nile’s water a “life or death is­sue” for Egypt, par­tic­u­larly in the frame­work of ne­go­ti­a­tions with neigh­bour­ing Su­dan, as well as Ethiopia.

Cairo fears Ad­dis Ababa’s con­tro­ver­sial Grand Re­nais­sance Dam in Ethiopia will bring con­se­quences down­stream.

For water man­age­ment con­sul­tant Dalia Gouda, Egypt cur­rently has two pri­or­i­ties when it comes to com­bat­ting its water scarcity dilemma: tack­ling over­pop­u­la­tion and de­fend­ing the coun­try’s in­ter­ests against Ethiopia’s dam.

“There are many in­ter­est­ing projects un­der way to im­prove water ef­fi­ciency,” says Gouda.

“Al­though they are not nec­es­sar­ily de­signed to com­bat the ef­fects of cli­mate change, they can only pre­pare the au­thor­i­ties to deal with them.” – AFP

— Pho­tos: aFP

a farmer pre­par­ing his field in north­ern egypt’s nile delta, wait­ing for the ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem to fin­ish wa­ter­ing it.

a water basin used for field wa­ter­ing. With the nile river dry­ing up, egypt’s agri­cul­tural heart­land is un­der threat.

Gadain (cen­tre, white shirt) check­ing on the so­lar pan­els with farm­ers.

The newly-in­stalled ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem that will be pow­ered by sun­light.

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